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Sabre and Foil Fighting

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Prisoners of the Red Desert

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Prisoners of the Red Desert
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Author(s): R. S. Gwatkin-Williams
Date Published: 2008/05
Page Count: 292
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-455-3
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-456-0

An incredible adventure from the Great War

This is a unique and riveting book. The steamer Tara and her crew spent the early part of WW1 patrolling the Northern Channel between England and Ireland before a transfer to coastal duties off Egypt and Libya. There she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat operating from a secret base on the Libyan coast. To ensure no intelligence of it's presence leaked to the British, the Germans towed the survivors—including this book’s author, the Tara’s captain, into captivity at the hands of the Senussi—religious zealots in league with the Ottoman Turkish forces. Then began a tortuous ordeal for the crew who suffered abuse, starvation and in some cases death at the hands of their gaolers. Abortive escape attempts across the relentless 'Red Desert' followed before rescue finally came in the form of a dramatic hunt and final assault by the forty armoured cars of the Duke of Westminster's squadron. An absolutely essential and gripping read which will be a delight to all those interested in the fortunes of British seamen, the war in the Middle East and well told accounts of true adventure.

A hoarse shout, resonant with excitement and agitation, electrified us; it was the man on mast-head look-out who had sighted something. <BR>
The actual report he made, the words he used, I did not clearly gather at the time; but their purport, the meaning of that sudden sharp yell, there was no mistaking. In all languages it is the same; it means only one thing—danger!<BR>
Overturning chairs and tables as we went we all with one accord sped to the ship’s side, and there, looking to starboard in the direction indicated, we saw, and knew for what it was, the impending danger.<BR>
Probably very few of my companions (they being mercantile officers pure and simple) had ever before seen a running torpedo. But especially in a calm sea such as this a torpedo is of all things in the world the most unmistakable. There is nothing else in Nature which makes that hard white line on the surface of the water, nor which moves with such deadly incredible speed.<BR>
The white line, pointing direct at us like a finger-post, its nearer extremity not three hundred yards away, extending itself with the speed of an express train, eating through space like the lightning flash—we all saw it, and we all knew.<BR>
For a second my surprise was so great that I was speechless. I was fascinated, even as are birds and small animals by the baleful glare of a serpent; my tongue and my limbs were frozen, immovable.<BR>
Then, like a flash, my life’s training asserted itself and I found I was gazing at my wrist-watch; it was 10.10 a.m. With this consciousness, paralysis fled, thought and speech returned to me.<BR>
Realising that it was a hundred chances to one that we should be hit, and, if hit, that we should certainly sink very quickly, I put my hands to my mouth and roared, “Away all boats!” Thus it was, that before the torpedo could strike home the men were already tumbling up from below.<BR>
At seven or eight knots the ship had barely commenced to turn when we were struck fair and square on the starboard side of the engine-room.<BR>
Contrary to popular belief, the detonation of a mine or torpedo makes no ear-splitting roar, unless they are on or near the surface of the water. A ship can be torpedoed in a fog a few cables away, without the next ship to her being aware of the fact. The sound is but a powerful muffled rolling crash and vibration. <BR>Simultaneously there arises in its vicinity a great black mountain which, after a momentary pause in mid-air, topples over and crashes tumultuously back upon the adjoining decks, generally bringing down with it, as it did in this instance, the wireless aerial, and smashing a good number of the boats.<BR>
After the thunder came the still small voice of lapping waters. Then all was quiet and peaceful as before. From the fore-deck little was visible to show that the ship had received her death-blow.<BR>
The master, Captain Tanner, was now upon the bridge, trying to stop the ship. Receiving no reply to his signals to the engine-room he put his ear to the voice pipe. No cry, no sound of struggle came to him along the tube; in their stead there echoed to him faintly the chug, chug of still turning engines, the gurgle, gurgle, swish and rush of many waters. Those who had been in the engine-room when the torpedo struck had all perished at their posts, overwhelmed in an instant by the in-rushing sea. No human hand would ever stop those engines now! But the sea itself, by invading the stoke-holds, quenching the fires and thus reducing the steam pressure, would in the end bring them to their last long rest.<BR>
As it was the ship still forged ahead at from four to five knots, rendering the safe launching of the boats a difficult matter. Nevertheless, after a sharp struggle, three of the boats cleared the ship in safety, taking with them the majority of the crew.
There then remained on board, besides myself, only the master, two wireless operators, the paymaster, and the guns’ crews, with, perhaps, one or two others. Milward, the naval seaman gunner, had quietly collected his men without any orders, and they were now standing at their weapons, cartridge in the breech, eagerly on the look-out for the submarine to show herself.<BR>
The two wireless operators were meanwhile busily engaged in trying to get an S.O.S. signal through—but it was vain! With the smashed aerial and flooded engine-room nothing could be done. As I looked up I saw Tanner, the wireless boy, seventeen years old, rolling his steel chest of confidential books (which were too heavy for him to carry) down the ladder and over the ship’s side. Mr. Dutton, the paymaster, at that moment came up from below, and reported that he had destroyed all the documents in the ship’s safe; he stated that the water was already knee-deep where he had come from. Thus we waited.<BR>
At last the long-expected periscope, that ill-omened eye on a stalk, came into view, moving silently along abaft our beam; the white tell-tale feather of spray which accompanied it, helping to make it more visible. Crash went our little six-pounder, and at the third shot we got the range to a nicety and proceeded to plaster shell around the difficult target. But at the eighth shot the periscope dipped below the surface again and we saw it no more. Content that for the time at least the U-boat was blind, we had leisure to look about us once more.
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